As property values remain high, are Canadian churches uniquely poised to benefit society?
Memberships in Anglican and other churches in Canada are shrinking, but real estate prices—despite recent market fluctuation—remain relatively high. Some say the churches’ wealth in property puts them in a unique position in Canadian society—one they might use to further goals such as affordable housing and supporting Indigenous communities.
The Rev. Jason McKinney, incumbent at Epiphany and St. Mark Anglican Church in Toronto, is also a member of the Parkdale Neighbourhood Land Trust, a non-profit that owns land and manages it by working with partners to provide social housing. In September, McKinney was preparing to lead the council of the diocese of New Westminster—which covers the city of Vancouver and its surroundings—in a theological reflection on land when, he says, he was struck by a realization: for years, land values have been rising, while the church has been seeing a decline in members.
“Not only do we currently have more land than we need, but we’ll soon have way more land than we need,” McKinney told the Anglican Journal. “Christian teaching generally frowns on surplus wealth unless this wealth is being directed towards those who need it.”
Paraphrasing the teachings of St. John Chrysostom, McKinney says that “if wealth has any spiritual value, it is to teach the rich to be generous.”
Though John was referring to wealth in general, McKinney says, “I think the application of this teaching to the situation in the church is hard to miss, because in Canada we’re facing an extraordinary affordability crisis as it has to do with housing and land.
“The church is perhaps one of the only institutions in Western society that has an excess of land, but also a mandate to seek the well-being of the community,” he adds.
Considerable—though hard to peg—real estate wealth
Claiming the church is wealthy, given the current financial struggles of many parishes and dioceses—not to mention the national church (See “CoGS ponders financial future as revenues drop,” p.9)—may seem a stretch. Moreover, determining the value of real estate held across the Anglican Church of Canada is difficult: the legality of church ownership is complex, and dioceses’ financial statements don’t commonly include estimates of the value of all the church buildings found in them. For example, in the diocese of New Westminster—which includes Vancouver, one of Canada’s most notoriously pricey cities for real estate—legal titles to church properties are held by different entities.
“Some titles, likely the vast majority, are held in the name of parishes incorporated pursuant to the enabling statute of the diocese,” says Chancellor George Cadman. Other legal titles are held in the name of “the synod of the diocese of New Westminster” and a few are held in the name of “the Lord Bishop of New Westminster.”
Still, Shailene Caparas, the diocese’s director of finance, can say the market values of its properties have “significantly increased” in recent years because of low supply and high demand.
This, of course, is not likely to surprise Canadian home-seekers. Between January 2005 and October 2023, the average benchmark price for homes of all types in Canada rose from $237,700 to $731,100, according to the Canadian Real Estate Association. The Real Estate News Exchange, a provider of news and commentary on Canada’s real estate market, reported in May 2023 that in parts of Ontario around the Greater Toronto Area, development land prices had increased by 500 per cent or more in recent years, particularly after an “explosion” in sales volumes that started in 2021.
Towards a ‘theology of land’
McKinney raises the need for what he calls a “theology of land” as a framework to inform how Anglican dioceses and congregations make decisions related to property.
If a diocese is putting together a property committee, McKinney says, “they’re going to —rightly—look for people that have the relevant expertise. This will usually mean people with experience in finance and real estate and law, architecture, construction, etc.” While individuals with such expertise willing to serve the church are “a gift not to be squandered,” he says, if theology is left out of the conversation, it will become merely a veneer for what is in essence a secular approach to the question of property.
Theology, McKinney says, “has something important to say to the so-called temporal conditions of the church, and of land in particular.” He believes it would be better for the church to let a theological vision determine what it does with its property, and then work with experts in relevant fields to determine how it will do so.
“There’s a rich theological tradition within the church on thinking about land to help in this discernment,” McKinney says. “If we don’t do that, if we don’t prioritize theology of land as the what and the why, then the values, assumptions and priorities of real estate and finance are going to replace the theological vision. And the church is going to function more like a self-interested actor in the marketplace than it is as a community called to participate with God in the renewal of creation.”
McKinney’s personal view is that there should be two priorities for the church when it comes to use of land it does not need: affordable housing and “reparations with Indigenous communities.”
Affordable housing and community hubs
Using surplus church property to offer affordable housing has proven to be a popular option for many dioceses in recent years.
The diocese of British Columbia, for example, in 2017 sold its disestablished St. John the Evangelist Anglican Church in Ladysmith, B.C. to the Ladysmith Resources Centre Association, a local charity that planned to build affordable housing on the site.
The diocese of Ottawa is partnering with a multifaith non-profit on a construction project to include seven floors of affordable housing on the site of its Julian of Norwich church, with another set of townhomes nearby. That proposal follows a $6.8-million project by Cornerstone Housing for Women, a community ministry of the diocese, to convert the former “Mother House” of a Roman Catholic religious community into a home for dozens of women needing affordable housing, which opened in 2018; and an $11.8 million women’s shelter spearheaded by Cornerstone and completed in 2011.
In Winnipeg in 2019, All Saints Anglican Church demolished its parish hall which had deteriorated over the years. The West Broadway Commons, a 12-story, 110-unit building with a mix of market-rate and affordable housing, was then built on the site in place of the parish hall. All Saints raised $600,000 for the project, backed by mortgage financing and government grants, and partnered with local non-profit organizations to provide housing for high-need tenants such as refugees and new mothers.
Another option, McKinney says, is the “community hub” model favoured by non-profits such as the Trinity Centres Foundation, in which churches hand over land and buildings to community partners and remain in a sense as secondary users—an option that he says is “de facto” happening at his own congregation.
“At Epiphany [and] St. Mark where I am, there are five or six community organizations that use the building throughout the week and a small congregation there on Sunday mornings,” McKinney says. “So the use that space gets is all about the community organizations who are doing good work in the neighbourhood.”
The diocese of British Columbia, meanwhile, is currently considering a plan that would involve the construction of up to 500 new residential units on the grounds of its Christ Church Cathedral property, mostly on land now used for parking. The project’s purpose is partly to provide a source of revenue for the diocese that would allow it to maintain its existing buildings. But Bishop Anna Greenwood-Lee has said it’s also about making its land as useful as possible at a time when church property is being used by fewer people, and housing is scarce.
“As a society, I think we have to look at how it’s easier to find a place to park your car than it is to find a place to lay your head—and the church is very aware of that,” she told CTV News.
Some of the proceeds, she said, will also go to Indigenous communities, as part of the diocese’s efforts toward reconciliation.
When it comes to using church land to benefit Indigenous communities, many Anglican dioceses have already taken steps by passing tithing resolutions, committing 10 per cent of funds from the sale of church properties to support Indigenous ministry.
In 2018, Council of General Synod appointed the Jubilee Commission, with a mandate to find ways to finance the Indigenous church, Sacred Circle, with a tithe on property sales one possibility. Along with researching past funding for Indigenous ministries within the church, the Jubilee Commission has been looking into current and future funding and is currently following up with dioceses who have passed tithing resolutions.
The diocese of New Westminster in 2019 became the first diocese to pass a tithing resolution, retroactive to Jan. 1, 2018. The Jubilee Commission’s report at the last General Synod reported that New Westminster sold around $17.5 million of property in 2018 after multiple church properties closed. The tithing resolution required that five per cent of funds from sale of church properties be returned “to the Indigenous Nations and communities including Métis and Inuit who are the ancestral caretakers of that land for use as they see fit”; 2.5 per cent would support Indigenous ministries in the diocese and a further 2.5 per cent at the national church level to fund Sacred Circle.
Similar proposals for using church property to benefit Indigenous communities can be found outside the Anglican Church of Canada. McKinney points to the work of Adrian Jacobs, senior leader for Indigenous justice and reconciliation at the Christian Reformed Church in North America.
Inspired by a conversation with Six Nations researcher Rick Hill, Jacobs wrote the document “A Spiritual Covenant with Churches” as a response for churches to land conflict in the Six Nations of the Grand River. The Spiritual Covenant serves as a potential model for agreements between churches and Indigenous communities. While the Spiritual Covenant was originally written with the Mennonite community and Six Nations in mind, Jacobs says, the most recent 2019 version has been “genericized” in order to “speak more broadly about the church in Canada, rather than just specifically the Mennonite community.”
Among the commitments in the document, a church would acknowledge Six Nations’ interest in the land and offer a token 99-year “lease” payment annually as a goodwill gesture. Six Nations would permit the churches to continue to use the lands in question as a function of the church. If the church were ever decommissioned, the land would revert to Six Nations possession as a reconciliation gift—with the assurance of Six Nations that the land would be used for spiritual, cultural, social, or community purposes and not for individual economic purposes.
McKinney says the Spiritual Covenant strikes him as “a way for the church to navigate the current crisis that not only helps to answer the asset management question—What do we do with all this land?—but also moves us in the direction of reconciliation through reparation.
“It will not only contribute to Indigenous self-determination, but help the church in its own healing and in the repair of its reputation, especially around Indigenous relations, residential schools, etc.”
National Indigenous Archbishop Chris Harper, who last June spoke alongside Jacobs at an ecumenical Indigenous conference hosted by the Canadian Council of Churches, says the language of the Spiritual Covenant is aimed at Christian denominations in which property decisions are managed at the congregational level. For Anglicans, by comparison, property decisions generally belong to the diocesan synod and the bishop.
Since General Synod 2023, Harper says, Anglican bishops have had talks about ways dioceses might help support Indigenous ministries. In terms of land, what each diocese can do depends on how much available land they have. Where some bishops might be “scraping by” with their available land and can’t afford to lose any more, Harper says, others might be selling surfeit land and agreeing to put 10 per cent of the sales toward Indigenous ministries.